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  • Rikki Lambert

Varroa mite bee threat puts over $14 billion of agriculture at risk - former minister

Australia's former agriculture minister has urged the Albanese government to press on with funding reforms to ensure biosecurity is adequately funded as a varroa mite outbreak threatens a sizeable portion of the nation's agricultural produce.

Varroa mite (varroa destructor) was recently detected at the Port of Newcastle and soon afterwards 95 kilometres north in Bulahdelah, then 95km south at Calga, resulting in significant restrictions being imposed on local apiarists.

Sentinel hives are maintained at ports and checked regularly to provide an early alert system.

No nation has been able to contain varroa mite when it entered their borders, and in some cases it has killed approximately 90 per cent of the country's bee population. The mite is a threat to introduced European bees that underpin the nation's agricultural industries.

The former Liberal-National government had been developing a 'cost recovery' model levying incoming shipping containers to fund the national biosecurity budget. The Coalition had declined implementing the planned levy before the 21 May federal election, expressing concern it would have a negative economic impact as the nation recovered from restrictions associated with COVID-19.

National Party leader David Littleproud told Flow listeners on Friday the government had invested $1.1 billion in added biosecurity expenditure over three budgets:

"The fact we are finding a lot of these incursions means we have more detection on the ground. We're going to continue to find that - but we need to make sure that we don't have this ad hoc funding. The ball's now in the new government's court to finalise this quickly.
"Sixty five per cent of agricultural production relies on bee pollenation. The bee industry is about $100 million just in honey but the pollination equates to about $14.2 billion worth of Australian agricultural production. They're the unheralded heroes of Australian agriculture, our apiarists. They are the most pivotal part of agriculture we've got - its a real wake-up call that the bee industry is one of the most agricultural industries we have in this country."

Hear the full interview with immediate past agriculture minister David Littleproud on the Flow podcast player below:

South Australia and Victoria announced in late June they were closing their borders to the movement of bees from New South Wales as a precautionary measure.

Meanwhile, one apiarist and former Shooters Fishers and Farmers senate candidate says non-commercial beekeepers should be compensated if their hives are destroyed in New South Wales amid the recent outbreak.

Amateur apiarist Shane Djuric, who owns 45 hives based on the outskirts of Sydney in Pitt Town, said it would incentivise more beekeepers to come forward and help stop the spread, telling AAP:

"Human instinct is to protect your assets and someone might not be willing to come forward if their livelihood or hobby is destroyed."

The NSW government is mulling cash payouts for commercial beekeepers - defined as operators with 50 or more hives - who are required to destroy their bees.

The Shooters, Fishers and Farmers Party's Mark Banasiak shares Mr Djuric's concerns that infected hives will not be destroyed because of the financial impact on owners.

"They are still at risk of this varroa mite.
"If they're not properly incentivised to come forward with their hives for testing, that could cause a real problem for the industry."

Mr Banasiak said larger amateur beekeepers like Mr Djuric could be making $60,000 a year off their hives.

The MP called for a per-hive compensation rate for any beekeeper who could not be defined as a commercial operator.

Mr Djuric suggested a rate of about $500 per hive.

Another eradication zone was established in NSW on Thursday to contain the deadly varroa infestation as details of the compensation package are worked out.

The NSW Department of Primary Industries has confirmed it set up an emergency zone at a property in Calga, about 100 kilometres south of Newcastle, in response to confirmed detections of the mite.

Agriculture Minister Dugald Saunders said commercial operators would be compensated for destroyed hives and equipment, but there were no plans to cover lost income.

Hundreds of hives have already been destroyed as authorities try to contain the pest which can be devastating to bee populations.

Detections can be reported by the public to the national Exotic Plant Pest Hotline on 1800 084 881.

Victoria's last detection of varroa mite was on a ship at the Port of Melbourne in 2018, with no further mites found at the port.


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